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Instead of fertile year, environment issues fizzle

In the 1998 Legislature, environmentalists wanted to see the Oklawaha River restored, the Preservation 2000 land-buying program extended, and polluters pay to clean up the Everglades.

Instead, they got a "Conserve Wildlife" license tag.

Republican leaders pledged to be greener this year, but Florida's environment was a big loser at the Statehouse.

The only significant pieces of environmental legislation to pass: more muscle for the Marine Fisheries Commission, a routine parks bill, and the license plate, with proceeds going to a non-profit group to help fund the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Every other environmental initiative went down in flames.

Although they had a fat budget, lawmakers refused to release $3-million to take down a dam that keeps fish and manatees from migrating up the Oklawaha River.

Then, they voted to name the dam after the man who has fought the river's restoration _ Gainesville Sen. George Kirkpatrick, a "Blue Dog" Democrat who often votes with Republicans.

Lawmakers scoffed at a $900,000 taxpayer-funded study that determined the dam should come down, and a directive from Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet to do the same.

Republicans pledged to extend the popular Preservation 2000 land-buying program, which expires in two years. But they couldn't agree on a compromise between two very different versions of the program, one of which dedicated some of the money for higher education.

They did pass a measure that allows Preservation 2000 land to be sold cheaply for development in the Panhandle's booming Walton County. Environmental groups vow to sue to stop the sale.

And they will have to try for a new land-preservation program next year.

Lawmakers also did little for Florida's highest-profile environmental issue: restoration of the Everglades.

Although 68 percent of Florida voters approved a 1996 constitutional amendment requiring Everglades polluters to pay for cleanup, the Legislature refused to enact a law this year to make it happen.

Instead, lawmakers passed a measure pushed by sugar interests that changes the laws on land condemnation, a move environmentalists and Democratic leaders say will slow restoration.

The Legislature also failed to adequately fund a water-cleanup initiative that Gov. Bob Martinez began in 1987 called the Surface Water Improvement and Management program, or SWIM. The SWIM program is supposed to clean up water bodies all over the state, including Tampa Bay. But despite a laborious effort by state water management districts to set priorities for cleanup projects, lawmakers took SWIM money and earmarked it for special hometown pollution cleanups, many of which aren't on SWIM lists.

A state report estimates the SWIM program needs $25-million to $30-million each year, but lawmakers released just $11-million to divide among the state's five water management districts. Lawmakers got the $11-million by raiding a trust fund that's supposed to pay for recycling and litter programs.

While most lawmakers gave short shrift to environmental issues this session, Tampa Bay lawmakers worked hard to turn the tide.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, worked to toughen rules for the Marine Fisheries Commission and joined Rep. Sandy Safley, R-Clearwater, to craft a successor to Preservation 2000. Safley, Latvala and Rep. Mary Brennan, D-Pinellas Park, fought to restore the Oklawaha but couldn't beat back Republican leaders who chose to keep the bass-rich reservoir created by the dam.